There's No Alternative to Cultural Appropriation

cultural growth just is cultural appropriation

The famous Kerma daggers are based on an Egyptian proto­type fitted however with a peculiarly Kushite pommel of ivory and tortoise shell…. David O’Connor, 1971

This quote comes from an article that in fact argues that cultural exchange between the ancient Egyptians and the greater Nubian peoples was limited, owing to several factors, primarily geography. I was unaware that the Sahara had been less arid and more hospitable to travel earlier in the Egyptian era, but I suppose this is a reflection of the immense length of their reign. (Remember, homo sapiens who lived in much the same way as cavemen had 200,000 years earlier were still hunting the wooly mammoth when the Great Pyramid of Giza was built.) Despite the fact that the interactions between Egyptians and their southerly neighbors was constrained, however, there was a great deal of exchange; they traded art, technology, resources, even gods. The ivory pommel there, crafted by identifiably Black Africans from a distinct culture and using a form of craftsmanship uncommon to Egyptian society at that time? It’s covered with Egyptian hieroglyphics. That’s culture for you - it abhors boundaries.

It’s encouraging to see that a drive-by accusation of cultural appropriation was met with the mockery that it deserves. (I assure you that those 6,000+ quote tweets are not echoing the sentiment.) As I’ve said, as hegemonic as this particularly cruel strain of social justice politics has become, the worm has already begun to turn against it. While we’ll be signaling our social justice bona fides for the rest of our lives, the particularly aggressive and self-aggrandizing school of woke politics is bound to lose, as it’s profoundly unpleasant. It also asks us to do things that we cannot possible accomplish - like living without cultural appropriation. I think it’s really important to underscore this point. The point when rejecting the cultural appropriation discourse is not merely to say that we should be able to mix and match cultural products to produce something new and better, though of course we should. The bigger point is that there is no alternative. There is no such thing as cultural change that does not include cultural mixing and exchange.

The woke Völkisch movement is based on a completely impoverished notion of how human beings develop cultural products like food, literature, visual arts, and music. Principal among these misconceptions is that cultural production is chosen and conscious. When someone makes an accusation of cultural appropriation, they’re claiming that somebody else has made a deliberate choice to integrate a given cultural product into what they produce. “Aha,” says white artist, “let me steal from the cultures of the global south for my own enrichment!” But that’s nuts; it’s simply not how influence works. You go to an art gallery, you see things there that you find moving or challenging, you go home and paint a painting. I promise, some of what you just saw in that gallery will appear in your painting no matter how much you might try to stick to your “culture of origin,” whatever that could possibly mean. We are all the sum of everything we have done and seen and experienced. Can you really look at every aspect of your personality and ascribe each bit of it to some specific discrete event or influence, then trace them back to a given cultural frame of reference?

I’ll answer for you: no, you can’t. And this is as true of someone who lived on a Polynesian island 500 years ago and never left as it was of Paul Gauguin when he toured those islands 350 years later. Humans integrate, we borrow, we assimilate, we iterate. Gauguin was a genuinely bad person and a great artist. He painted scenes from those Polynesian islands and wore the influence of their art on his sleeve in doing so. But if he had gone back to France and insisted on trying to paint only “European subjects” in “European style,” itself an inherently vague and contradictory goal, he would still carry the islands in his brush. Because that’s how humans work. We are not a collection of discrete experience particles but a swirling mixture of influences we barely understand. And some agonizingly progressive art student who self-consciously rejects Gauguin for his crimes, who makes it their mission not to be influenced by them? They’re bound to fail. Once they’ve seen his art, that art is imprinted on their brain, and it will assert its influence despite every conscious intention.

Cultural exchange always goes both ways. Yes, jazz is a quintessentially Black American artform, though all of the greatest Black jazzmen have given great credit to the white musicians who participated in its production. But to call jazz Black does not and cannot mean that it’s entirely distinct from white art as well. Jazz drew from ragtime, also “coded” Black, but ragtime drew from marches, drawn in great measure from white men John Philip Sousa and (eep) Wagner. Of course, there’s also march music from Bangladesh, Japan, Colombia, Turkey, even the Caucasus, home of the literal Caucasians, who are not very white. It’s turtles all the way down: you can’t ever get to the pure origins, because there are no origins. There’s mitochondrial DNA in culture, pure essence of human creativity that has no bedrock beyond what’s shared in the human experience. Trying to shed the bad adulterants and get to the pure cultural product, crafted only by the legitimate owners of that product, was stupid and futile when Goebbels attempted it and it’s just as stupid and futile when some Evergreen College sophomore tries to do it on social media using a iPhone that draws parts from 43 countries and scientific influence from vastly more.

Gospel was a white artform before it was a Black one. Does that invalidate gospel as a part of the Black experience, make gospel “less Black”? It’s an absurd question. Yes, early rock and roll was deeply influenced by rhythm and blues and the Black artists who pioneered it. But it was also influenced by the skiffle movement among white artists in the United Kingdom - which in turn drew from Black jug bands, but also from white folk acts, who in turn were influenced by traditional European musical styles, which did not spring fully formed from the head of Odin but from a panoply of earlier predecessors that stretch back to the dawn of civilization. People these days are very defensive about Black cultural production, and I get it. But what does it cost Black people or Black culture to point out that they too have been influenced by artists of other racial and ethnic origins, that they no more created cultural products in a vacuum than did Elvis or the Beatles? Yes, celebrate Blind Lemon and Robert Johnson, and give Black artists the credit and financial support they were once denied by the industry. (That’s one we can safely put in the win column, it seems to me, though I know it’s forbidden to identify progress.) But there’s no need to cancel Elvis to do that. Like all racial progress, cultural progress is not zero sum. Which is good news because, again, if the sands of the Sahara thousands of years ago were insufficient to preclude cultural exchange, the inevitability of that exchange in 2021 is such a foregone conclusion that you better make peace with people of all kinds being influenced by the entirety of the human experience in ways we can’t predict or fully understand and certainly can’t prevent.

There are all manner of other arguments that you can make about this stuff, many of them damning - what could “Indian culture” mean? why would an affluent Western Vietnamese-American college student have more say over whether an American can purchase Vietnamese cultural goods than a poor Vietnamese peddler who lives in Vietnam? who would want to live without the sheer awe-inspiring variety of food, music, art, and ideas available to us in the modern world? - but inevitability is enough. No one knows what cultural growth without cultural exchange looks like. There is no such thing as an originator of noodles and dumplings and no version of noodles and dumplings that has not been contaminated by the influence of “outside cultures,” even if we were to pretend that there was any such coherent thing as inside or outside.

This mutual cultural enrichment isn’t a violation of anyone’s sovereignty, but the best, most optimistic element of living in a multiracial and multicultural society. In an era where racial pessimism is enforced from above by those who profit from it, the continuing day-by-day reality of mutually-beneficial cultural exchange and artistic influence is our most consistent and universally beneficial symbol of the possibilities of radically diverse community. There are some woke arguments I take seriously and some aspects of that political tradition that have value. “Cultural appropriation” is not among them. The idea could not have less merit. It’s nonsensical, unrealistic to the point of absurdity, contradicted by all of human history, and invoked 100% of the time as a way to play petty dominance politics over others. It’s another concept that cosseted academics developed as a way to assert their superior virtue over others, a chess piece for those who see social justice as a status game. You can go out into this big ugly world and drink deeply from the fruits of cultural exchange, by which I mean every last human good worth enjoying. Or you can try and cancel the ancient Nubians several millennia after the fact. But you won’t live without cultural appropriation. No one ever has, and I don’t know why anyone would ever try.